For the first couple of weeks after Occupy Wall Street got going on September 17, the mainstream media treated it with a kind of condescending amusement. Protesters were seen as an aimless, if amiable, rabble who could safely be ignored because they had no list of “specific demands.”
But in looking for such a list, the punditry was looking in the wrong place: inside the box. Occupy Wall Street is calling, not for a laundry list, but for a change in vision. Participants are not candidates running for office, of whom we might well ask that they come up with a list of policy prescriptions. Instead, Occupy Wall Street wants to turn upside down the whole framework within which public policy is being set. (To be fair, many of the major news outlets do finally seem to be catching up to this fact: see for instance the Sunday editorial in The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/opinion/sunday/protesters-against-wall-street....)
There’s a reason that the place first “occupied” was Wall Street: headquarters of a financial system that increasingly serves the interests of the very top bracket of income earners/wealth holders at the expense of everyone else. Hence the movement’s catchphrase “I am the 99%.”
The Declaration of the Occupation of New York City on the website nycga.cc/2011/09/30 says in part, “As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members… [that] a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.”
The protests are thus, literally, a campaign by the many to reoccupy their own country, territory that has been increasingly usurped by a very few—and worse, by entities that, though legally deemed “people,” are not human at all.
The alternative vision is America as a land of equal opportunity, with no special privileges for anybody on account of how much money they have, whether in terms of election-buying, lobbying power, immunity from prosecution, bailout protection against financial failure or preferential tax rates. If you want “specific demands,” a list can be inferred from this vision with ease: e.g. a ruling that corporations aren’t people and money isn’t speech; re-regulation of rogue industries like the financial sector; government policies that reverse the decades-long concentration of wealth and income in the United States; and prosecution of corporate wrongdoers, to name a few.
There is nothing new about this vision, or these demands. We have seen them before on editorial pages and blogs, in books and television commentaries, and in other scattered protests that have occurred around the country from time to time. What does seem to be new, and effective, about the Occupy movement, is the extent to which it is not only a protest but an exercise in community building. As more and more people convene, at least for a few days, on “occupied” territory, the many previously disparate groups that have had this vision, and made these demands, are being drawn together in a vast force from which all can draw strength.
Take another look at the first sentence of the declaration: “As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members.” It is this cooperation that is visibly being forged at the venues being occupied, and with it, for the first time, groups that have been fighting scattered rearguard actions against forces of money and power that have seemed insurmountable are gaining the sense that no, they are not outmatched after all. They are the 99%.
To be sure, specific actions must ensue if this newly energized community is to attain its goals. Such actions can be local as well as national. The fight for home rule, which allows local residents rather than a partnership of state and business determine how our land is used, is perhaps the clearest local attempt to “occupy” our own territory. In fact, Monday’s public hearing on Tusten’s zoning rewrite, much of which focused on this issue, amounted to a mini-Occupation of Tusten. To hear it, visit www.tusten.org.
Efforts by our communities to sustain ourselves locally, whether in terms of power generation from sources like solar and wind, or the production and consumption of locally grown food, is another. And here’s another one, to remember on November 8: if you want to be sure that your town is ruled by the 99%, find out exactly what your town candidates believe before the elections, then go to the polls and vote—and get your neighbors to do the same.